Pew Forum marches on (post No. 3,000)

FanfareTrumpetsThis past summer I was talking with another religion-beat professional and this nationally known journalist put something into words that I had been feeling, but had not yet articulated. This scribe who will not be named said that on many days she or he felt like he or she was turning into a public-relations person for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“Amen,” said I. “I know just how you feel.”

In recent years, the pollsters and journalists over at the Pew Forum have been downloading waves of data about into the minds of religion-beat professionals from sea to shining sea and beyond. There are other groups doing research into some of these topics — religion and politics, for example — but no one has been creating as many headlines as the Pew Forum.

There are times when a self-aware Godbeat scribe has to go out of the way to avoid covering some of this material. Last year’s study on Pentecostalism is a perfect example. Now, I have been told, they are gearing up for a nation-by-nation study of religion in Africa. Try to avoid writing about that, in an era where tensions between growing expressions of Islam and Christianity are on the rise. Can you say, “Nigeria”?

I bring this up for two reasons — one obvious and one not so obvious.

The obvious reason is, well, obvious if you have been online this morning. There they goagain. You can run, but you cannot hide, from the results of the Pew Forum’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The stories are everywhere and legions of GetReligion readers have been sending us URL’s since yesterday afternoon, when the embargo on the results ended. More on that in a minute.

The less obvious reason is that this — a blast of trumpets, please — is the 3,000th post on this here weblog. And it would be hard to find a more symbolic or appropriate topic for a landmark post than the whole changing landscape of American religion. So here goes.

There is so much coverage out there, and so much information in this survey, that I do not quite know where to begin. I mean, the Forum crew interviewed 35,000 adults. Think about that for a minute. Personally, I plan to munch on it for a week or so, and look at some of the angles that do not draw coverage, before even attempting to find a unique lede. But other reporters, obviously, had to write — on deadline.

So what were some of the MSM ledes? This is a case where diversity was a plus and it’s interesting to note who put what right up top. I’ll avoid the names of reporters, to save space.

* One clear option was what you might call the “post-denominational age” lede. Here is the New York Times take on that one:

More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations. For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes.

* You had the same basic approach at the Associated Press, only with a hint at the winners and losers:

The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds. …

While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.

* This was a story where a classic W5H lede (if you need to ask what that is, you are not a journalist) might have been appropriate. The Dallas Morning News put as much as possible in one sentence and that looked like this multi-sentence approach:

A major new measure of religious belief in the United States confirms trends shown in earlier polls: The percentage of adult Americans claiming no particular religion is at an all-time high. The percentage of Protestants is dropping. And the percentage of Catholics is stable — but only because the overwhelming majority of immigrants is Catholic.

BelieveUSAflag* The Washington Post had some interesting breakout numbers very close to the top, after using the post-denominational lede:

Forty-four percent of Americans have either switched their religious affiliation since childhood or dropped out of any formal religious group, according to the largest recent survey on American religious identification. …

Among other findings, the survey indicated that members of Protestant denominations now make up only a slight majority — 51.3 percent — of the adult population. The 44 percent figure includes people who switch affiliations within one of the major faith traditions, such as a Protestant who goes from Baptist to Methodist. Counting only people who switch traditions altogether — say, from Catholic to Orthodox, or Protestant to Muslim — the number drops to 28 percent.

* And there you have it, one of the other strong contenders for a different and more specific angle on the story. Let’s call it the non-Protestant America lede. Here is the Los Angeles Times, which managed to get that note sounded right from the get-go:

Americans are switching religious affiliation in ever-greater numbers or abandoning ties to organized denominations altogether, and Protestants are on the cusp of becoming a minority, according to a survey released Monday.

Barely 51% of Americans are Protestants, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, just 43% identify with this branch of Christianity. … Protestants have always held a majority status in the United States.

* Now get ready for an ironic twist. Just because the Protestants are fading does not mean that the other largest body in American religious life is doing just fine. Check out this lead from the Washington Times, which is sure to raise eyebrows:

Evangelical Christianity has become the largest religious tradition in this country, supplanting Roman Catholicism, which is slowly bleeding members, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evangelical Protestants outnumber Catholics by 26.3 percent (59 million) to 24 percent (54 million) of the population. …

“There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in past few decades toward evangelical churches,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum. “They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”

The traditional mainline Protestant churches, which in 1957 constituted about 66 percent of the populace, now count just 18 percent as adherents.

In other words, the post-denominational age is producing churches that are post-denominational and those are called Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. So the fact that America is approaching a post-Protestant majority status does not automatically mean that another form of mainline faith will gain power. Things may simply get more diverse and more confused — period.

I could go on and on with this and, methinks, the other GetReligionistas will join in. But I think you see the major options.

However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.

You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage (and Rod “friend of this blog” is exploring some of that). It will be interesting to see if there are hints at that down deep in the Pew Forum survey.

Stay tuned. And tell friends about GetReligion. We are 3,000 posts into this and I think we’re hanging around. You think?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dale

    Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend.

    Those are the questions that immediately came to my mind. Even though I “converted” from one Protestant tradition to another, I left because my original denomination consistently failed to teach its own doctrine.

    The other unaddressed issue is quality of membership. For a pollster, church membership is easy to quantify: either you’re on the membership rolls, or you aren’t. When it comes to the quality of membership–whether a member had water sprinkled on his head once, and called it a deal, or a member has developed an all-encompassing worldview based on religious affiliation– there isn’t an easy measure to include in a poll question. Thus, you get arbitrary definitions like “highly religious” meaning someone who regularly attends weekly worship services.

  • Bob

    William Murchison just published a column about the Pew findings and the fate of religion in America. It is worth checking out. The url is

  • wrigley peterborough

    This just confirms my suspicious that the big boys, Saddleback, Willow Creek, aren’t better at reaching the unchurched–they’re better at poaching from other churches.

  • Judy Harrow

    What I’m curious about, and have not seen, is whether they have any idea how many of the “unaffiliated” group are “spiritual but not religious,” and how many are actually agnostic or atheist.

  • Jerry

    The original source answers Judy’s question is the chart in all it’s glory. Short answer, very few are really atheist/agnostic. But even there we see lots of detail. If you can tell me the difference between “nothing in particular” and “spiritual but not religious” and “eclectic”, you’re a better person than I am.

    Unaffiliated 16.1%
    * Atheist 1.6%
    * Agnostic 2.4%
    * Nothing in particular 12.1%

    Other Faiths 1.2%
    * Unitarians and other liberal faiths0.7%
    o Unitarian (Universalist)
    o Liberal faith
    o Spiritual but not religious
    o Eclectic, “a bit of everything,” own beliefs
    o Other liberal faith groups
    * New Age
    o Wica (Wiccan)
    o Pagan
    o Other New Age groups
    * Native American Religions

  • Chris Bolinger

    A key member of the Pew Forum is a Zip? I guess a few folks in Flyover Country are relevant. :-)

    I’d love to hear the answers to the questions that you pose to Green.

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  • Peggy

    I have to quibble with the concept “post-protestant.” I’m not sure it is correct to say that America is now “post-protestant”. Evangelicals are protestant. They are a new strain of protestants. The old entities and forms are dying out and being replaced.

  • C. Wingate

    What is most striking (besides the relative boringness of most numbers: a lot of “hot trends” are belied by this survey) is the way they classify Protestants. They tease out the JWs, the Mormons, and the Orthodox; everything else is either Catholic, or “Mainline Protestant”, or “Evangelical Protestant”, or “Historic Black”. “Evangelical” seems to be something of a code word for “conservative”, “Mainline”, for “liberal”.

  • Bob Smietana

    Where to the Pentecostals fall in all of this?

  • tmatt


    Read carefully.

    The phrase is “post-Protestant majority status.”

    Not post-Protestant. Post protestant MAJORITY.

  • danr

    “Not post-Protestant. Post protestant MAJORITY.”

    Understood, but I think Peggy’s (valid) point was that Evangelicals could still fall under the “Protestant” umbrella. Terminology is important: Evangelicals/Pentecostals/non-denominationals still may rightly be considered Protestant (i.e. not Catholic or Orthodox), but rightly distinguished from mainline Protestant in both nature of beliefs and in growth trends.

    Or did I miss in the diverse data that in fact, all forms of Protestantism (non-Catholic/Orthodox Christianity) – including Evangelicals – used to but no longer make up a majority of the US population?

  • tmatt

    Of course they are all Protestants.

    And, soon, all Protestants together will add up to a total under 50 percent of the US population. That’s the point.

  • danr

    Got it – missed your qualifier “approaching”, validated by earlier finding of “51.3 percent of US adults”.

    Though it might have been (far) beyond the scope of the Pew Forum’s survey, I wish they could’ve found a way to survey youth as well. 64% of born-again (evangelical) US Christians made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday – and 50% before age 13 (Barna). That’s an important backdrop against which to view the current faith trends of US adults.

  • C. Wingate

    I notice, BTW, that the Pew survey counts (as usual) twice as many Anglicans as ECUSA does.

  • Stephen A.

    I question any survey that thinks we still have 48 states. Hawaii and Alaska are curiously missing, without explanation. That’s two million people who aren’t represented here.

    And anyone who thinks New Hampshire and Vermont are so close together in attitudes that they can simply merge them into NewHampshireVermont, as this study does, is mistaken. (Same goes for ConnecticutRhode Island, although they truly are small.) And I won’t take any guff about sample sizes being too small, either.

    The survey does bear out what I’ve been saying for a while, and that’s that NH is one of the most “unchurched” places in the US (26%) At least (grumble) NH/VT is.

    Other than the hurt feelings, it was very interesting and enlightening. The trend, as many probably suspected, is away from the mainline protestants towards conservative denominations. Hence, “post-protestant.” The megachurches do appear to be simply poaching, but they also seem to be very good at it.

    The effect of massive Hispanic immigration into the US has rescued the Catholic Church, it seems. That bears far more reporting, esp. the attitudes of the newcomers (more belief in miracles and veneration of the saints, perhaps) vs. the “cafeteria catholics,” and how that manifests itself in congregations – if it does at all, since I wonder now if the seperate “ethnic churches” are making a comeback, too.

  • Dennis Colby

    Connecticut may be small in size, but it has more residents than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. But the whole device of merging states seems odd.

  • Matt

    What exactly do they mean by “mainline”? I would have thought that “mainline” would refer to all of the historic denominational traditions (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc) without regard to theology, but it seems that Pew is instead identifying “evangelical” as conservative and “mainline” as liberal.

    As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I immediately checked the chart for my denomination, and was surprised to find it classified as “evangelical” rather than “mainline”. PCA has a conservative theological orientation (“confessional” is a good term) but also identifies strongly with its “Presbyterian-ness”. In a similar vein, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (care to comment, Mollie?) are classified as “evangelical” rather than “mainline”.

    If you take all the “Denominational Evangelicals” (the only statistically significant ones are Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians) and move them into the “Mainline” column, the Evangelical/Mainline ratio goes from 26.3/18.1 to 12.9/31.5. The shift is mainly due to Baptists.

  • Matt

    This appendix gives the details of Pew’s Evangelical/Mainline classification scheme, but does not explain why the different denominations were pigeon-holed in this way.

  • Cathy Grossman

    Terry, I’m disappointed. Not because you left USA Today out of your round-up (boo hoo, no mention for me in GR and you missed our fabulous interactive map, too) because you missed the perfect opportunity to whack some sense into everyone about the missing context for the Pew study.
    Did you wonder why the story was promoted but not played on our front page? It’s because I made clear to our bosses, though alas, not clear enough to readers, I fear, that this is NOT news.
    Yes, Pew spoke with 3,500. The American Religious Identification Survey spoke with 100,000 in 1990 and 50,000 in 2001. Yes, Pew found people switching and looked into who went where. So did ARIS 2001 in great depth. Yes, Pew found that many who have no religious identity still have religious ties — so did Baylor and Lifeway Christian (smaller survey).
    Pew has indeed created the newest map of American religion, found higher peaks, lower valleys, faster change — but it didn’t exactly unearth a here-to-fore-unknown Grand Canyon or Mt. Washington.
    The Pew folks hammered their self-praise for their work endlessly and tied the media hands so that no one would have enough space or time to point out in the most noticed rush of stories, that they had nothing terribly new to say.
    You, I always expect to have something new to say.

  • Julia Duin

    GR writers: Here’s a thought – next time a release comes out, grade the coverage on how much the writers stuck to the original press release or reworded things in a more understandable way. Several articles, I noticed, basically repeated Pew’s wording although some of it wasn’t making sense. “The US is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country,” it said – altho at the same time, it said the Catholic Church was losing members by the ton! There was this inherent contradiction there from the get-go that I tried to straighten out in what I wrote.
    And in the telephone press conference, they did admit to stiffing Alaska and Hawaii – didn’t say why. They cut off the press conference after 90 minutes, leaving some 20 of us still in line with multiple questions. Fortunately I was able to get one of the researchers on the line afterwards; am not sure all the other journos were able to. Note to Pew: Next time you have an info dump like this, break the news earlier in the day.
    In a way, the survey didn’t have a whole lot that was new; we all knew the mainline is shrinking, the unaffiliated is gaining, Catholics are in big trouble without the immigrants and evangelicals are splintering. Would have liked something on Wicca, which is said to be growing a LOT – didn’t see that on their site. Do look at some of the interesting factoids about each denomination on the site; I was able to do a separate blog on how 70% of all Buddhists are remaining childless – not a great way to pass on the faith to the next generation!

  • Dave

    I notice, BTW, that the Pew survey counts (as usual) twice as many Anglicans as ECUSA does.

    It counts three times as many Unitarian Universalists as the UUA does. Evidently a lot of people identify with a denomination without bothering to join one of its churches.

    Would have liked something on Wicca, which is said to be growing a LOT – didn’t see that on their site.

    It’s hard to parse a subgroup that’s about the size of the intrinsic error of your survey.

  • Peggy


    I haven’t had a chance to check in, but I see your correction. Protestants are not minority yet, however. If the non-denominationals keep getting Catholics (and we get some immigration control!), Protestants as a whole may continue to make up the majority of Americans.

    Interestingly, in light of the report of immigrants replacing departing American Catholics, the motives of the USCCB favoring illegal immigration was debated at NRO’s The Corner yesterday. [Now of course tributes to their founder Bill Buckley RIP, fill The Corner today.]

  • Julia

    I was able to do a separate blog on how 70% of all Buddhists are remaining childless – not a great way to pass on the faith to the next generation!

    If you look at the age of the Buddhists, most of them are probably not of parenting age yet. Same with the New Age folks.

    I would have liked to see a chart with age the determinant. Example: among those 18 – 29, what percentage are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Wiccan, unaffiliated, etc.

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  • Ann Rodgers

    I’ve finally recovered from a very long — can’t say how long due to union rules — Pew Forum day without food. Amen to Julia regarding doing this earlier in the day, although I do realize that our West Coast colleagues had to be accomodated.
    I don’t think anyone has noted that this is just the first installment of three reports from this survey. One of the issues that I have is that in Western Pennsylvania, mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants are largely the same people. ALthough Pew didn’t do a Zip Code breakdown, Pennsylvania would show up as much more evangelical than it does if they looked at evangelicals who belong to Episcopal, PCUSA, ELCA and United Methodist churches.
    When I spoke with John Green afterward, he told me that the next installment will in fact look at that. It will not only find out how many people in “liberal” denominations are evangelical — but how many closet liberals there are in the Southern Baptist Convention. That could be fascinating.
    Regarding the person who asked how they determined which churches were evangelical and which were mainline, they looked at actual doctrinal statements — such as how strongly each upheld biblical authority — and I believe also considered alliances such as NCC versus NAE. “Mainline” is no longer the useful term it once was in the 1950s, when it described the largest, most influential Protestant bodies in the country, but it remains a polite code word for these theologically diverse churches. (I have no qualms about using it in Pittsburgh, where the mainline still is, in fact, the mainline).
    The Reformed tradition to which the PCA belongs certainly is a major mainstream tradition, but the PCA was, in fact, created by a split away from a “mainline” Presbyterian church. And, in all fairness, the the PCUSA may be hemhorraging members, but it still dwarfs all the breakaway groups (PCA, EPC, OPC etc) combined.

  • C. Wingate

    One needs to look at the “children” number extremely carefully, because it reports only the number of children in the household. Therefore the “no children” number is heavily padded by people who haven’t started and people whose children have left home.

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